Last night several of us went the short distance from the Voltaire Foundation to the intimate Simpkins Lee Theatre at Lady Margaret Hall to see Emilie: la marquise Du Châtelet defends her life tonight by Lauren Gunderson. Knowing nothing of the play, but a little about Emilie Du Châtelet, I was braced for an evening of nudity (read about the butler’s embarrassment here), gambling and adultery. I can assure you that it wasn’t. The Emilie Du Châtelet presented in this play is very much appropriate for a general audience wanting to find out about a woman scientist of the Enlightenment. Unfortunately the play presented quite a one-sided oversimplification of her life, with no hint, for example, of the bullying to which she subjected Mme de Graffigny. It seems wrong somehow, in a play about a possible feminist icon, to reduce another one to a mere annoying houseguest.
We had no such misgivings about the production. All the actors were fun to watch for their enthusiasm and quirkiness. The older Emilie Du Châtelet put in a great performance, despite the punishing task of being on stage for the entire play, including the interval. We particularly enjoyed the highly expressive face of her father, husband and new young lover (all played by the same actor). But Voltaire naturally stole the show for us!
Anyone curious to round out their knowledge of Emilie Du Châtelet should read Emilie du Châtelet: rewriting Enlightenment philosophy and science, edited by Judith P. Zinsser and Julie Candler Hayes, or Cirey dans la vie intellectuelle du XVIIIe siècle: la réception de Newton en France, edited by François De Gandt (in French).